A crowd of about 400 smelters gathers for a small run at the mouth of the Lester River on April 25, 1986. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)
Up until the 1980s, one of the biggest gatherings in Duluth each year was the annual spring smelt run along the shore of Lake Superior and local rivers feeding into the lake.
Each spring, the call went out when smelt – a tiny fish – swarmed by the thousands to spawn. When the fish came, thousands of locals and visitors swarmed to scoop them up for smelt fries. In the 1970s, the Minnesota DNR even operated a “Smelt Information Headquarters” in the old Duluth Curling Club on London Road.
The smelt run took on a party atmosphere, and probably isn’t remembered very fondly by police and neighbors who had to put up with the rowdy crowds and litter. There are many articles in the News Tribune files from the 1970s covering meetings on what to do about smelting-related troubles.
There was at least one tragedy – in April 1981, two UMD freshmen at a smelting party were swept out into Lake Superior by the swift current of the Lester River, and drowned.
Whether loved or loathed, the smelt runs decreased over time, and largely died out through the 1980s and early 1990s. As the fish dwindled, so did the annual party on the banks of the Lester River.
Here’s a look back at some photos and articles about smelting from the News Tribune files:
Keith Buddish of Cloquet dumps a few smelt into a waiting bucket on the Lester River on April 23, 1986. Buddish was one of a growing number of people waiting with nets for the smelt run to begin. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)
May 9, 1983
Rite of spring in full swing
Duluth is a city of five seasons – spring, summer, fall, winter and smelt – but it’s that fifth one which causes a lot of natives to shake in their hip boots.
Smelting is the art of catching a silvery Lake Superior fish about the size of a toothpaste tube – squeezed almost dry – with fine-mesh dip nets or minnow seines. The smelt begin spawning runs into shallow waters and up Lake Superior tributaries along the lake’s South Shore and work their way clockwise to Duluth-Superior and the North Shore.
Although all shoreline communities are invaded by fishermen during the smelt runs of late April or early May, Duluth receives the greatest number with its Park Point beaches and abundance of rivers feeding Lake Superior.
The city’s Lester River is a Mecca of the net-dipping mania and, at peak weekends of the run, hundreds of visitors and residents mingle to catch, to watch and to party while the smelt move upriver. The crowds there and at Park Point require additional police and police auxiliary personnel – and an extensive daily cleanup effort each morning after the night before.
But even residents of those neighborhoods see some good with the arrival of the smelt and smelters: It’s a seasonal harbinger that spring is here and summer isn’t far off. -END-
Dave Anderson of Sparta Location, near Eveleth, holds his “trophy” smelt at the Lester River on May 5, 1983. Anderson and four others in his party netted only a bucketful of fish in two days. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)
May 2, 1980
Smelting: A mad, springtime ritual of the night
By Pam Miller Brochu, News-Tribune
The young smelter, resplendent in waist-high waders and a BUST OPEC T-shirt, split the night air with his cry, hoisting the long-handled net in which flipped a single, startled smelt.
Ecstatic with beer and moonlight, the smelter grabbed the little fish in his muddy hand and bit its head off.
The most frenzied of spring rites, which might provoke an anthropologist’s scrutiny elsewhere, is a regular midnight occurrence on the Lester River as hordes of smelters, their inhibitions left at home, celebrate the catch of their first smelt.
The combination of a full moon, full beer kegs and crowd psychology turns the Lester into a prime night spot – or trouble spot, depending on your point of view – each year at this time, when the doomed smelt fight their way through hundreds of rubber boots at the mouth of Lake Superior rivers.
There was plenty of action Wednesday and Thursday nights, but it was subdued compared to what’s expected tonight, as the peak weekend opens.
There’s something for everyone in Lester River night life – pockets of absolute mania on some rock outcrops, quiet family gatherings on others. Small children risk their lives crossing the narrow, fast-moving current rushing into the lake; senior citizens sit in lawn chairs and take it all in.
Duluth police officer James Wright stands patrol on the Lester River bridge during smelting on April 25, 1986. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)
Around 10 p.m. Wednesday, the smelt weren’t running heavily, but the smelters were. They poured into the area by car, cycle and foot. It was rush hour on the river, and Mike Ferrazi and Frank Ruby of the Lakehead Emergency Volunteers calmly directed crowds of pedestrians through the heavy traffic on the Lester River bridge.
“No problems so far,” shouted a cheerful Ferrazi over the hubbub. “Slow DOWN!” he yelled at some passing hotrodders. They ignored him. …
Down on the rocks, darker than usual because of the ban on fires, there were more partiers than smelters.
“This is the highlight of my year,” said one exuberant young man, sloshing his beer for emphasis. “You can really get crazy, you know? But don’t use my name. By day I’m real respectable … can’t blow my cover.” …
Rick LeBlanc of Hermantown surpassed tradition by biting the head off not just his first smelt, but about two dozen others, too, at the Lester River on May 5, 1983. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)
There were many serious folks, too – those who came primarily to net smelt.
Don Uhlhorn, 27, and his wife, Mary Burmeister, 28, had come from Sandstone with three large buckets.
“I’ll spend all day tomorrow cleaning them, then divide them up in meal-size portions,” Uhlhorn said. “We give them to my folks, Mary’s folks, friends, neighbors and our cat.” …
“Smelting’s a tradition for us,” said Al Heins, who comes annually from Grand Rapids with his wife Linda and their children Jan, 17, and Lyndy, 16, to stay with Heins’ sister, Connie Merrill, 2525 E. Fourth St.
Oblivious of the icy water, Lyndy plunged into the river without waders. Jan was less enthusiastic. “It’s a heck of a long way to come for a few fish,” she said.
Elizabeth Rios of Newport, Minn., watches out for potential customers to her Marina’s Lunch Wagon during smelting at the Lester River on April 25, 1990. Rios, her husband and two daughters planned to stay as long as the season lasted. (Clara Wu / News-Tribune)
From the river, a smelter let loose a string of profanities. Pained, one mother covered her small daughter’s ears. The partiers and the families keep their distance from each other, and around midnight, the partiers take over.
But smelting, like television networks, has its family hour – before the sun goes down and before the smelt get thick. In the warm glow of Wednesday and Thursday evenings, the beach was crowded with children skipping stones and learning how to swish the nets.
Rick and Gayle Frenzen, 1017 N. Seventh Ave. E, were on their first-ever outing with Shawn, 2, and Ricky, 4, Wednesday.
“It’s a big thrill for the kids to get out here,” Gayle Frenzen said.
Ricky Jr. cast a line in the fashion of a four-year-old, almost hooking his father, who readied the smelting nets and buckets.
“I’m gonna catch a smelt,” he said solemnly. “A smelt four feet long.”
Hours later, around 3 a.m., the crowd thinned out, but the hardcore smelters left were pulling in nets heavy with fish – just as if the smelt had waited for the darkest, quietest hour to make their final run, unhampered by nets – and human teeth.
Bags of bottles, cups and cans give visitors Lucille and Ed Sobania of Little Falls, Minn., a good idea of what happened the night before on the Lester River on May 5, 1983. (Jack Rendulich / News-Tribune)
Share your smelting memories by posting a comment. If you have photos to share, e-mail them to akrueger(at)duluthnews.com.